John Cage on the demilitarization of language

John Cage in a radio interview, August 8, 1974 (link):

I let it be known to my friends, and even strangers, as I was wandering around the country, … that what was interesting me was making English less understandable. Because when it’s understandable, well, people control one another, and poetry disappears — and as I was talking with my friend Norman O. Brown, and he said, “Syntax [which is what makes things understandable] is the army, is the arrangement of the army.”

So what we’re doing when we make language un-understandable is we’re demilitarizing it, so that we can do our living….

James Joyce by CageI found this via Kenneth Goldsmith in Rhizome:”Displacement Is the New Translation” (link).

Erratology and the Ill-Logic of the Seismotic University

Garden of Forking Paths

A new essay by Stephen Turner and myself, “Erratology and the Ill-Logic of the Seismotic University”:

With the tertiary education mantra of creativity, critical thinking and innovation in mind, we consider the critical-creativity of error. Taking the university to model social orthography, or “correct writing,” according to the norms of disciplines, we consider the role of error in the classroom. Error questions the norms governing norms and the instability of disciplinary grounds; it involves a mis-taking, or taking another way. By tracing the origin of error, we are able to reconstruct the social world in terms of which it is conceivable for a mistake of any kind to have been made. The university, we find, withholds worlds which are not new but are sources of creativity, and constitutes a pluriversity or poly-versity.

In short, we learn by making mistakes.

Download here (subscription required).


The Oulipo” by Stefanie Sobelle, Bookforum (2 Oct. 2009).

I am not aiming to acquire . . . a certitude about the truth of what I state as true in memory. All I need to do is remember at the moment when, remembering, I wrote what I remember. (Jacques Roubaud, The Great Fire of London)

Cover of "Life: A User's Manual"

Sobelle introduces her Oulipo reading list:

Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, both writers and math enthusiasts, began collaborating in Paris in 1960. The duo quickly attracted a following, which became the Workshop of Potential Literature (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or OuLiPo). Inspired by their love for mathematics, the group devised rigid constraints for literary production, including such puzzles as bilingual palindromes, isopangrams (twenty-six-letter-long statements containing all the letters of the alphabet), and N+7 (replacing every noun in a text with the seventh noun down in a dictionary).

The aim of Oulipo, as Queneau suggests in his 1963 essay “Potential Literature,” was

To propose new “structures” to writers, mathematical in nature, or to invent new artificial or mechanical procedures that will contribute to literary activity: props for inspiration as it were, or rather, in a way, aids for creativity.

Theirs, then, was a performative and heuristic model of writing; according to Mónica de la Torre in “Into the Maze: OULIPO” (, they wanted

  1. “to write literature that could not be easily consumed and disposed of, literature that was always in the making” and
  2. “to devise a system to guarantee that writers would not run out of innovative formal possibilities.”

Queneau split from the Surrealists because he considered much of their experimentation without literary merit, mere “eructative” (“shriek”) writing and without scientific rigour, hence the motto he and Lionnais devised: “the only literature is voluntary writing.” Oulipo is procedural, constrained in advance, rather than apophenic (“patternicity”: looking for patterns in random material) or aleatoric (automatism: randomising).

Some of the numerical, alphabetical, graphic and prosodic possibilities of constrained writing that Oulipo explored include

  1. the Knight’s Tour
  2. lipograms, used in Perec’s A Void
  3. the N+7 machine
  4. palindromes
  5. Perec’s “story-making machine,” used in Life: A User’s Manual

A reading list (available partly or wholly online  ✓):

  1. Oulipo Compendium, ed. Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie (Atlas, 1998) ✓
  2. Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, ed. and trans. Warren Motte (Dalkey, 2008)
  3. Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau, trans. Barbara Wright (J. Calder, 1981) [see Wikipedia] ✓
  4. Writings for the Oulipo, Ian Monk (Make Now P, 2005)
  5. Life: A User’s Manual, Georges Perec, trans. David Bellos (orig. 1978; Collins Harvill, 1987) [see Wikipedia and Paul Auster’s NY Times review] ✓
  6. The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations (trans. Dominic di Bernadi; orig. 1989; Dalkey Archive P, 1991) [excerpt] and The Loop (trans. Jeff Fort; orig. 1993; Dalkey Archive P, 2009), Jacques Roubaud [see Wikipedia] ✓
  7. The Conversions, Harry Mathews (orig. 1962; Dalkey Archive P, 1997) [see the Paris Review interview with Mathews] ✓
  8. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981) [see Wikipedia and David Mitchell’s Guardian retrospective] ✓
  9. Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, Marcel Bénabou, trans. David Kornacker (orig. 1986; U Nebraska P, 1996) ✓
  10. “The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo,” McSweeney’s 22: Three Books Held Within By Magnets, 2006.

I would add one more essential text: Raymond Queneau’s Letters, Numbers, Forms: Essays, 1928-70, trans. and intro. Jordan Stump (U Illinois P, 2003).

See also

  1. Six Selections by the Oulipo,” The New Media Reader, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (MIT P, 2003) 147-89
  2. Foulipo,” Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, talk for CalArts Noulipo Conference (Fall 2005): a call for a “feminist oulipo”
  3. Oulipo Ends Where the Work Begins: A Weekend in Four Constraints,” Christopher R. Beha (Sep. 2006)
  4. Drunken Boat 8: Oulipo special issue (2006)
  5. “The Oulipans & the Situationists,” David Vichnar, Vitalpoetics: A Journal of Critical Literary Theory (2008), online at David-Baptiste Chirot, 4 Dec. 2009 [you’ll have to “find” this entry, as the blog is continuous (aargh!)]
  6. Constrain Me, Baby,” Lily Hoang, HTMLGiant, 21 June 2010
  7. Remix and Potential Criticism,” Richard Edwards, Remixing the Humanities, 25 Mar. 2011

Random—or Aleatory—Verse?

“Love Begins a Future: An Anthology of Google Voice Transcriptions Formatted and Annotated as Poetry” from 3quarksdaily (8 Feb. 2010) [silently edited]:

Google recently introduced Google Voice, which routes calls among different lines, performs other screening and call handling tasks, and automatically generates a written record of each phone message using voice transcription software. . . . I’m not going to complain about the transcription software’s high error rates, although lots of people do. […] I’ve noticed something about these Google Voice transcriptions: I see an authorial sensibility taking form, like a face emerging from a cloud bank. These transcriptions can be read as poetry.

Since the transcript/poem often bears little resemblance to the actual words spoken, who are the real authors—the Voice, the callers, or some synergistic combination of forces beyond our limited understanding?

Here: Decide for yourself.

Whatever This Is (Caller: My friend Christina)

Hey mister
it’s Christina
just left you a message and then
I got your message and realized
you’re stuck out

but I’ll try you.

But yeah, just trying to be tomorrow
(if you get the chance)
And if you’re a few Karen in China the next day
Council lot more
eating minnows on the step
and give me a little

I’ll be hanging around then and I am
whatever this is.

Editor’s note: The “Hey, Mister” is not something Christina would say, so that must be the Voice talking. The reference to Asia’s Karen minority is a surprising inclusion. “Eating minnows on the step” could therefore a reference to that region’s politics, since Mao said a revolutionary must swim among the people like a fish.

The Maoists thought they were ushering in a new future. But don’t we all just “try to be tomorrow” when we “get the chance”? I attribute much of this piece to the Voice, although “whatever this is” is resonant with Christina’s sense of irony.

We might be tempted to describe the procedure by which this poetry was generated as random, but, strictly speaking, it’s not—because the input from which the poetry is generated is semiotically (syntactically, semantically and pragmatically) standard and the output lexically so. The input is semiotically standard because the input is normal speech, the output lexically so because it relies on standard dictionaries for its “translations.”

Neither is the procedure of random poetry generators, in which the output is generated by a mathematical process called a Markov chain, a discrete random process with the Markov property (i.e., one that can exist in various states but changes in discrete steps [“transitions”], with the next step in the chain [the “transition probabilities”] dependent only on the current state of the system, not on the state of the system at previous steps):

Where X1X2X3, … is a series of random variables,

Pr(Xn+1 = x|Xn = xn,…,X1 = x1,X00) = Pr(Xn+1 = x|Xn = xn).

In order to produce an output that lexically and semiotically resembles standard language, certain linguistic parameters or “rules” about the syntagmatic/combinative → (word order [transitions]) and paradigmatic/selective relationships ↓ (word choice, i.e., parts of speech [transition probabilities]) of words might be defined with Markov chains. Here’s one from Language is a Virus (very much in the spirit of William Burroughs, the genius loci of the site):

Strange and damp among the shadows

Quite glowing beyond the shadows
I see evil spells beyond the fire
Alack! The devil will vanish
All peaceful on the dreamscape
I destroy dark virgins beyond the fire
Dig it! The inspiration keeps going
Strange and damp among the shadows
I smell desirous goats about the virgin
Ahhh! The day is good
wary curious
blurring at the edges
memories of water
In whose eyes
the victim
forget to go home
when the world was new

It would be more adequate to describe such procedures as aleatory (“of uncertain outcome,” lit. “depending on the throw of a die,” 1690s, from L. aleatorius, from aleator “a dice player,” from alea “a die, the dice”) in that they introduce chance or indeterminacy into the compositional process. To go one step further, they might well be seen as aleatory-materialist procedures that embody “the primacy of materiality over everything else, including the aleatory,” to use Althusser’s term from “Philosophy and Marxism” (Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-87, ed. François Matheron and Olivier Corpet [Verso, 2006] 262-63 [251-89]). For him,

what culminates in materialism . . . —the primacy of the Friends of the Earth over the Friends of the Forms, according to Plato—is aleatory materialism, required to think the openness of the world towards the event, the as-yet-unimaginable, and also all living practice, politics included. (264)

Indeed (Badiou would say Friends of the Void, no doubt). Such procedures allow matter to deform form (rather than vice versa, as is the practice of poetasters).

Ahhh, Earth! And more: “Full of merit, yet poetically, man dwells on this earth . . . [Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch wohnet / Der Mensch auf dieser Erde].”

The “Objectively Offered Object” of Ghérasim Luca

Ghérasim Luca (1913-94) was a member of the Romanian Surrealist Group (1940-47), which stood for “a reinvention of the surrealist imagination” through “a critical approach to dreams, the eroticisation of the proletariat, the poetic appropriation of quantum physics, and the perpetual re-evaluation of surrealism through the negation of negation” (The Passive Vampire, with an Introduction on the Objectively Offered Object, a Found Portrait and Seventeen Illustrations, ed. and intro. Krzysztof Fijalkowski [Bucharest: Les Éditions de l’Oubli, 1945; Librarie José Corti, 2001; Prague: Twisted Spoon, 2008]; see Twisted Spoon and Salonica).


We know that the Surrealists loved objets d’art of various species:

  1. “old-fashioned manufactured objects,” i.e., “found object[s],”
  2. “natural object[s],”
  3. “striking arrangement[s],”
  4. “machine[s],” and
  5. “being-objects.”

(Richard Coyne, Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism, and the Romance of the Real [Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2001] 192, citing Sarane Alexandrian, Surrealist Art, trans. Gordon Clough [London: Thames & Hudson, 1970] 141)

For Luca and his co-conspirator Dolfi Trost, creating such objects allows us to move beyond traditional, i.e. plastic (3D) and subjective, art practice by the use of “rigorously applied scientific procedures”:

We have returned to the problem of knowledge through images . . . by establishing a clear distinction between images produced by artistic means and images resulting from rigorously applied scientific procedures, such as the operation of chance or of automatism. We stand opposed to the tendency to reproduce, through symbols, certain valid theoretical contents by the use of pictorial techniques, and believe that the unknown that surrounds us can find a staggering materialization of the highest order in indecipherable images. In generally accepting until now pictorial reproductive means, surrealist painting will find that the way to its blossoming lies in the absurd use of aplastic, objective and entirely non-artistic procedures. (“Dialectique de la Dialectique“)

(How absurd, i.e., aleatory, non-intentional and meaningless, the objects were is debatable—especially because, as we’ll see below, they were “offered” to a particular person.)

And they represent a response to the outworn nature of modernity, embodied in his motto: “Everything must be reinvented, nothing exists anymore in the whole world” (quoted in Inventor of Love & Other Writings, trans. Julian and Laura Semilian [Black Widow; Commonwealth Books, 2009]; see Ghérasim Luca: Reinvent Everything).

Hence Luca invented—or rather, reinvented, or better, redesigned—the “objectively offered object” or OOO (sometimes shortened to “offered object” or OO) as an objet d’art offered in a particular spirit. The OOO was made while thinking of the person for whom it was intended—like a kind of fetish (an object to which is attributed inherent value or power); thus it served as a vehicle for sentimental or intellectual exchange and became a qualitative description that could be interpreted like a rebus. They were usually assemblages or composites of found and chosen elements that aimed to reveal the hidden relationships between subjects and reveal the workings of an “active collective consciousness” by describing, revealing, invoking a desire, eros being what we might call the “circulatory” principle of society.

An object focusses the movement of desire:

When offering an object to someone, external causality responds more rapidly to internal necessities. Erotic relations between myself and other individuals are more quickly established though the mediation of the object.

A found or made object becomes offered (an OOO) on the slightest pretext, i.e. one of little interpretative value:

For a found or made object to be transformed into an offered object, and for it to be able to change its nature in line with the new relationships established in the interior life of the individual seeking a new balance between the internal and external, the pretext to this transformation must have an interpretive value that is, if not always negligible, at least very limited. The offering of an object might have as its setting the pretext of decoration, or a celebration, or some other external and circumstantial accident, just as the manifest life of a dream uses diurnal remnants and random internal and external stimuli to provide the sleeper a framework of no interpretational value within which the action of the dream can unfold.

Note that the OOO is not a gift—because gifts aren’t erotic:

In today’s society, the offered object bears no qualitative relation to the gift. The gift is an object that is bestowed only after having been stripped of its objective erotic character. Its emotive force is neutralised by its standardisations, which has allowed the bourgeoisie to thwart the differentiation of individual tendencies and thus offer one more argument in support of contemporary morality, which is presented as the only all-encompassing morality possible.


“The Letter L,” The Passive Vampire 39.

The Letter L embodies Luca’s desire to form a rapport with André Breton. As he puts it,

The doll found in the shop window and the envelope full of riddles in the drawer only imposed their presence, violently, into my life at the moment when the desire to know B. [Breton] located in them the overt substitute means for doing this. The incubus found its full realisation through the use of these two magic objects in which I was also shortly to discern sorcery’s demonic power. (44-45)

It is constructed from an antique wooden doll, with hundreds of pictorial riddles from an almanac randomly pasted over its torso and right leg, and with another doll’s head attached upside down to its pelvis. Razor blades are inserted into the head of the second doll’s head, one sliced into its eye (see Mute).


This is the first sentence of The Passive Vampire, which embodies Luca’s fetish for objectivity (though it couldn’t be described as non-subjective):

Objects, these mysterious suits of armour beneath which desire awaits us, nocturnal and laid bare, these snares made of velvet, of bronze, of gossamer that we throw at ourselves with each step we take; hunter and prey in the shadows of forests, at once forest, poacher, and woodcutter, that woodcutter killed at the foot of a tree and covered with his own beard smelling of incense, well-being, and of the that’s-not-possible; free at last, alone at last with ourselves and with everyone else, advancing in the darkness with feline eyes, with jackals’ teeth, with hair in lyrical, tousled ringlets, beneath a shirt of veins and arteries through which the blood flows for the first time, we’re lit up inside ourselves by the giant spotlights of the very first gesture, saying what must be said, doing what must be done, led among the lianas, butterflies, and bats, like the black and white on a chessboard; no one would dream of forbidding the black squares and the bishop—the ants vanish, the king and queen vanish, the alarm clocks vanish in turn, we reintroduce the walking stick, the bicycle with odd wheels, the timepiece, the airship, keeping the siphon, the telephone receiver, the shower head, the lift, the syringe, the automatic mechanisms that deliver chocolate when numbered buttons are pressed; objects, this catalepsy, this steady spasm, this “stream one never steps in twice” and into which we plunge as into a photograph; objects, those philosopher’s stones that dis- cover, transform, hallucinate, communicate our screaming, those stone-screams that break the waves, through which the rainbow, living images, images of the image will pass, I dream of you because I dream of myself, hypnotically I aim at the diamond contained within you, before falling asleep, before you fall asleep, we pass through each other like two ghosts in a marble room whose walls are hung with life-sized portraits of our ancestors, with the portrait of a mediaeval knight next to the portrait of a chair gazing at the two fossils of ghosts on the walls of this spectral museum, and if it is true that we are shadows, then the people and the objects all around us here are nothing but the bones of shadows, the shadows of shadows. . . . (71-72)

Elsewhere, he puts it more directly:

In the world in which I like to breathe, a box can take on the same psychic content of a beloved woman; the delirious and fetishistic love between a man and a box thus casts a prophetic, thaumaturgic light onto the outer world. (81)


N.B. (1): Luca also invented cubomania, a “surautomatic” method of making collages in which a picture or image is cut into squares and the squares are then reassembled without regard for the image.

Cubomanie IV.


N.B. (2): Gilles Deleuze frequently cited Luca’s poetry as a prime example of stuttering in language, which for him represents the highest poetic function:

I believe that Ghérasim Luca is one of the greatest French poets, and of all time. He certainly does not owe this to his Romanian origin, but he makes use of this origin to make French stammer in itself, with itself, to carry the stammering into the language itself, not simply the speaking of it. Read or listen to the poem “Passionément,” which has been recorded as well as published in the collection Le Chant de la Carpe. One has never achieved such an intensity in the language, such an intensive use of language. A public recitation of poems by Ghérasim Luca is a marvellous and complete theatrical event. (“One Manifesto Less,” The Deleuze Reader, ed. Constantin V. Boundas [New York, NY: Columbia UP, 1993] 213)

In “Passionément” (1973), Luca literally stutters for several minutes (“Pas pas paspaspas paspasppas ppas pas paspas”) before he is able to utter the poem’s climactic final lines, which turn on the affirmation, “I love you passionately.” According to Deleuze, in this performance “[t]he entire language spins and varies in order to disengage a final sonic block, a single breath at the limit of the cry I LOVE YOU PASSIONATELY [Je t’aime passionnément]” (“He Stuttered,” Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Michael A. Greco and Daniel W. Smith [Minneapolis, MN: UMP, 1997] 110 [partially viewable], quoted in Ronald Bogue, Deleuze on Literature [London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2003] 101).

Jared Wells at Begayer la Langue has a blog on recordings of Luca’s poetry; Ubuweb has several recordings.

We Pagans


c.1375, from late Latin pāgānus “pagan,” in classical L. “villager, rustic, civilian” (cf. peasant), from pagus “rural district” (cognate to Greek πάγος, pagos “rocky hill, marker”), originally “district limited by markers,” thus related to pangere “to fix, fasten,” from PIE base *pag- “to fix” (cf. pact/peace, page, pale,/pole). Religious sense (paganism/paynimry) is often said to derive from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities, but the word in this sense predates that period in Church history, and it is more likely derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for “civilian, incompetent soldier,” which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church (e.g. mīlitēs “soldier of Christ,” etc.), i.e., pagans are civilians to the Church’s soldiers.

While we soldiers of Christ (or the other Abrahamic prophets) were/are all pagans before we were/are soldiers, there is another sense in which some of us are pagans. Pagans are those who dwell outside the polis, which is the site of modern neonomadism, where uprooted pagans go to settle or through which they transit, the place of the coming race. Those who live a relatively fixed existence—provincials (like me), indigenes, and other immobile non-nomads—remain beyond the pale of the modern, despite our attempts to get into the race.

But, if we sidestep the race and sidetrack the stragglers, it gives us a strength: a primitivism (f. L. primitivus, “first of its kind” or original) that is not necessarily atavistic (“ancestral,” thus, behind) or mediocre (“middling [i.e. from medius “middle” + ocris “sharp peak,” i.e., halfway up the mountain],” thus, beneath), but appropriate and/or appropriative (“made one’s own,” thus, beside).

We pagans of the pagus Anglorum are not inside, we’re beside, which paratactic orientation has virtues of its own.

Pagus Hispanorum in Florida

Arnoldus Montanus, “Pagus Hispanorum in Florida” [St. Augustine], Die Nieuwe en onbekende Weereld . . . (Amsterdam, 1671), repr. in John Ogilby‘s atlas America: Being the Latest, and Most Accurate Description of the New World (London, 1671).

The writing zone as “writing-intensive zone” (Wendy Bishop)

Wendy Bishop, “Contracts, Radical Revision, Portfolios, and the Risks of Writing,” ed. Anna Leahy, Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2005) 109-20.

Further to my summary of Peter Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking,” a summary of Bishop’s recipe for “a ‘writing-intensive’ zone,” which focusses on

how evaluation discourages and encourages student writers’ entry into the revision process and concurrently supports them in learning to understand themselves as writers

i.e. “authority-conscious pedagogy” (109).

First off, using portfolios to create an “evaluation-free zone” (Elbow 1993) allows us to focus on revision and risk. Revision is compelled by the course contract, and risk—a.k.a. “experimentation” (115)—is practised in our writing (and in the zone more generally—and, needless to say, in our teaching).

Second, setting up an atmosphere of risk in the writing zone encourages “going public,” not only with “therapeutic” disclosure but also “writerly disclosure” (112). Of course, it requires that readers of this disclosure be trained to help improve it.

Third, as a consequence of the first and second ingredients, creating “classroom carnival, turning the text upside down”—and the hierarchy and codes of the university (115). (This sense of carnival I call decryption and deformance.)

Fourth, recognising that the teacher is an authority, who “tell[s] students not what to write, but to write” (113). That is to say, the writing zone is not just a risky and upside-down place, a place where “trust” must prevail, it is also a place where people are compelled to write, and thus, inevitably, a place of “resistance” (118).

The resistance is at least fourfold, then: against public disclosure and compulsion, against our preconceptions of writing and the university, and against the university and its codes—not to mention, against that common enemy of writers: resistant material.)

(Bishop takes as a given reading [of our own, and others’ unpublished and published writing], drafting, and a language for talking about reading and writing.)